Poetry on Paper

I’m standing here at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning. I should be getting my classroom ready for the day but instead I am reading a book of poems by Billy Collins that I have borrowed from the public library. It’s been taking me a while to finish it–not because the poetry is difficult, but because I like the idea of absorbing each poem after I read it. It sounds pretentious as hell, but there is something to be savored in those moments after you read the last line and are still in that poem’s world.

As I read these poems, or any collection of poetry for that matter, I make a mental note of those poems that I think my sophomores would enjoy or understand and other poems that would make good companions to the literature we are reading. If it’s something I will definitely use, I make a photocopy and pass it out.

Now, I realize that last sentence constitutes a major copyright violation on my part, but as I stand here reading poetry, basking in its glow, and thinking that my students may enjoy it, I’m also reminded of why we still use paper in this age of Innovative Educators doing everything in a virtual, paperless world.

I was introduced to poetry what seems like a billion years ago, when one of my elementary school teachers read selections from A Light in the Attic and Where The Sidewalk Ends. From there, it was photocopies of poems by Ogden Nash, Robert Frost (who is still a favorite), and Edgar Allan Poe. As I reached high school, I found myself poring over beat-up copies of random poetry by writers I had never heard of, none of which came from a text book. In fact, I don’t think that I had a “textbook” of poetry until I had to buy a Norton anthology in college (and that’s not a bad thing–between my wife and I, we have four Nortons in our house). It sounds weird to put it this way, but I have always felt that the way those poems were shared with me made them special. Yes, we eventually read a lot of them for analysis in class, which makes it all one big inauthentic experience, but for whatever reason, those photocopies meant something more in the way that my friend giving me a mix tape and saying, “You’ll like this” always meant more than my buying a CD at The Wiz.

This is a tradition that I am happy to continue, and I am happy that I still have paper to do it. Most of the time, if I were to tell a student “You really should download this book to your Kindle” or “You should google this writer,” they won’t do it. And yes, I realize that there are many times when I distribute a poem to the class and we read and talk about it, the copies of the poem are left on desks or fall to the floor at the end of class and I pick them up and put them in my filing cabinet. But there are also those students for whom that poem is a gateway and they find themselves on the computer that night falling down rabbit hole of poetry, something that started with a photocopy of a poem from a collection I was reading one morning.

So I’ll continue to do it, no matter how antiquated (and yes, borderline illegal) it may be. And I hope it’s not too arrogant to think that maybe there are a few of my students out there who are savoring those moments after finishing a poem, then taking a sip of coffee and going about their day.


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